Don’t take that tone with me!

The tone you take with a horse can make all the difference, research suggests.
The tone you take with a horse can make all the difference, research suggests.

The tone and pitch of voice used with horses affects their response, research suggests.

Many new riders are instructed to move slowly around horses. They are also advised to speak in a soothing tone, in the belief it can encourage calmness in the animal.

A recent study investigated whether such advice had a beneficial impact on the horse.

“Anecdotally, we know that horses respond better to calm and soothing tones, so our hypothesis is that speaking in a calm and pleasant voice will inspire calm behaviour in a horse,” said Katrina Merkies, of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

Merkies and other researchers from Guelph and Agrocampus Rennes, in Rennes, France, set out to discover whether the emotional tone and pitch of voice had any effect on horses.

They outlined their findings at the International Society for Equitation Science conference in the United States, in Newark, Delaware, which ended Saturday.

For the study, eight draft horses were individually assessed in a 10-metre round pen.

Each horse was released into the pen, and baseline behavior and heart-rate readings were taken over a five-minute period. Behaviors scored included gait head-height position, and ear and body position relative to the human.

After establishing baselines, a familiar human approached the pen, and one of four recorded voices was played for a 10-second duration. They were:

  • A pleasant voice, low tone.
  • A pleasant voice, high tone.
  • A stern voice, low tone.
  • A stern voice, high tone.

The researchers found that the horses maintained the lowest head position when no human or sound was present, but all elevated their heads in the presence of a human or sound.

The playing of a pleasant tone resulted in the horses positioning their bodies toward the human. While there was no treatment effect on ear position, the horses did orientate their ears more toward the sound if the human was present.

Horse heart rate did not increase solely in the presence of the human, but it did increase coupled with sound, with the stern voice with low tone in particular resulting in the greatest effect.

Results would indicate that fewer signs of behavioural distress are observed when a human speaks to the horse in a pleasant, low tone versus a stern tone.

“We’ve shown that horses do in fact display different physiological and behavioural responses to different tones and voice. So horses are able to discriminate between different tones or qualities of voice,” Merkies said.

Research often creates more questions than it answers, and based on the results obtained, additional research may be required.

“However, it’s not clear if the horse is interpreting or responding to the tone of voice alone, or if it’s looked at in combination – both tone of voice and the human’s body language. Which is the more salient clue to the horse? That certainly warrants further study.”

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